By Holly Shanks
Clashing viewpoints on a proposed new general management plan (GMP) for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR) have resulted in some heated debate between environmental groups and regional interests.
Every couple of decades, the National Park Service (NPS) is required to re-evaluate a federal park’s GMP. The last time the ONSR re-evaluated its plan was in 1984.
The updated plan now consists of four alternatives that have a range of regulatory reach with alternative A being the most restrictive and C, the least. The NPS preferred plan is B and the fourth option is no-action, which is the continuation of the existing plan. An open comment period was held for the public to give feedback on the alternatives. A finalized plan is tentatively expected to be released at the end of this year.
A few of the issues that the NPS is grappling with are unauthorized roads, trails, access points and water quality involving E.coli.
Unauthorized roads, trails and access points
The Park Service is grappling with issues involving unauthorized roads, trails and access points. The ONSR, which sees over 1.5 million visitors annually, was created in 1964. Some of the roads, trails and access points in question existed before the creation of the park, but the NPS may not recognize them as legitimate or designated for use.
Heather Navarro, the executive director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE,) supports the NPS preferred plan B, which will help address unauthorized trails and access points.
“It recognizes that things can’t stay the same because we have the data to know this park has changed a lot since 1964,” Navarro said. “It’s not going to get any better if we don’t change the way we are doing things.”
MCE is a non-profit environmental group that works to protect and restore Missouri’s environment through education, public engagement and legal action. MCE uses scientific data and research to advocate for policy changes to protect natural resources, according to Navarro.
Navarro said problems such as, illegal trails and unauthorized access points cause environmental degradation. She said illegal boat ramps, for example, can cause disruptions to the river and increases erosion.
“We know that there are over 100 motorized access points on 135 miles of river. Every one of these access points is a huge opportunity for erosion that degrades the water quality and degrades the stream channels,” Navarro said. “So, all of that is ultimately degrading the whole quality of the park.”
Friends of Ozark Riverways (FOR) include information about motorized access points on their website under the framework for reform tab. FOR is a private environmental organization, which MCE helped form, according to Navarro.
Missouri Rep. Robert Ross, R – Yukon, argues that citizens are not going into the ONSR and forging new trails through the area. He said that in the majority of these cases – and the 150 miles worth of roads the NPS is proposing to close – they were in existence before the designation of the park.
“These roads and trails have all been there,” Ross said. “Whether the NPS has recognized them or not.”
Christy Roberts, Ellington Chamber of Commerce president, also said the roads and access points in question along the river are not newly-created. There were towns and farms along the river before the area became a National Park. Those roads and access points are the interconnecting transportation routes that were used before 1964. The river itself was also used for transportation and many roads lead to the river because of that. She also explained that access points can be naturally created and move with the flow of the river.
Dena Matteson, ONSR management assistant, said over the years there has been a lot of controversy about unauthorized trail usage. The proposed General Management Plan would help give some guidance on where the NPS goes from this point in time.
“We’ve got to have a good solid plan to move forward with and that will help us settle some of those issues,” Matteson said. “There are a lot of conflicting viewpoints about what is actually an established trail and what isn’t.”
Matteson said there are 23 miles of designated horse trails and 90 miles of horse trails that have not been designated by the NPS. She explained to designate a trail there is a planning and evaluation process to determine sustainability and impacts on resources. She said it is possible that some of the undesignated trails could be older roads that previously existed. Paths can also be cut by means like the wild horses in the area. Once a path starts off an existing trail and begins to be used, it becomes a new trail over time. After a few decades the trail system has expanded to what it is today.
ONSR Superintendent William Black said there has been negligence in allowing the development and use of unauthorized trails. Part of the remedy, once designated trails are established, will involve having rangers enforce the rules. There are 16 full-time law enforcement rangers at the ONSR. This season, changes were implemented allowing more law enforcement to be on hand during the summer. However, it will mean fewer on hand during the fall and winter. If the changes are successful, the NPS should be able to fund one or two horse patrol rangers through the summer within the existing budget.
Darren Lingle, 8th Congressional District manager for U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, said Smith supports the no-action alternative for GMP. He introduced legislation H.R. 4182 that mandates operation according to the existing GMP. The bill passed out of the U.S. Natural Resources Subcommittee and can now move forward to the U.S. House of Representatives. A second bill to turn the ONSR back over to the state of Missouri did not pass out of subcommittee this year.
Lingle said he does not think anyone on either side of the debate sees the existing GMP as perfect, but it does more to balance all the activities on the rivers in the ONSR than any of the new proposals.
“Sticking with the old plan is the best option. If there had been a better option now on the table, according to the congressman…, then it might have been a different story,” Lingle said. “It’s not necessarily about what does it address, it’s about what does it takes away. All the (plans) were very restrictive in different areas.”
Lingle explained that several of the ONSR counties depend on tourism, especially Shannon County. He said over 80 percent of the land in Shannon County is owned by the federal government. It is a low-tax base area and new restrictions could hurt recreation revenue. He said the NPS is proposing to open several miles of new horse trails, but that could still cause a negative effect.
“New trails would be great, but you’ve got people that book rides based on what is there.” Lingle said.
Water Issues and E.coli
In 2011, the ONSR was placed on the Most Endangered Rivers annual list by American Rivers (AR). The environmental organization works to protect and restore rivers in the U.S. through advocacy efforts. Using a scoring process, AR, chooses rivers from nominations submitted from organizations around the country.
Jessie Thomas-Blate, associate director for river protection at AR, said the ONSR was chosen to be included on the list of troubled rivers due to poor management. She said the Most Endangered Rivers list is not intended to gauge pollution in a river, but rivers that are facing a turning point in the coming year.
“We also take a look at timing and whether a decision that could make or break the river is coming up,” Thomas-Blate said. “In this case, it was trying to get the park service to manage the river better and what they are doing now is an attempt to do that.”
“Uncontrolled” equestrian use is listed as one of the reasons part of the lower Jacks Fork River was included on Missouri’s list of impaired waters in 1998 due to fecal coliform pollution, according to American Rivers.
Fecal coliform (E. coli) is bacteria associated with human and animal waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) In 2004, the Jacks Fork River was taken off Missouri impaired waters list with approval of the EPA.
Navarro said there are thousands of more horses utilizing the ONSR than 20 years ago and horse manure contributes to elevated E. coli levels. The question becomes figuring out how to still give access for these recreational activities, but at the same time preserving the park. She said the water that is in the river today is not the water that is in there tomorrow.
“People are not going to want to go horseback riding (in the ONSR) in 50 years,” said Navarro. “If you fall in the river and get sick because it’s so full of E. coli.”
Roberts has a different perspective. She said the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) supports the no-action alternative and would be worried about contamination and pollution if there was an issue with the river. She also explained if there were solid scientific issues with the river, environmental groups could get an injunction, which is a legal warning or order, against the NPS.
“Other than the E. coli, which is natural in the river, it’s naturally in all water and may have higher levels where the horses use the river and frequent the river more often,” Roberts said. “But, those levels are still not high enough to cause alarm to the natural habitat of fish and everything in the river.”
Matteson said at this time she did not know of any unsafe or high-levels of contaminates in the river. At certain times and locations numbers will rate higher dependent on what the activities are in that area. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is the agency that determines water quality levels.
Ron Coleman, the 1st vice president of the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM,) said his group supports the NPS preferred plan B. CFM is a citizen group that supports conservation efforts in Missouri.
“I’ve always been a strong advocate of compromise and collaboration,” Coleman said. “You can achieve a lot that way. Everybody won’t be happy, but maybe the things that are most important will benefit.”
Lingle said when the ONSR was created the people were told they could maintain their same historical activities, but they continue to see restrictions and new proposed restrictions.
Roberts explained the importance of heritage and retaining recreational uses of the area. She said when the park was created in 1964, many people who lived along the river lost their homes and farms due to eminent domain, including her husband’s family. She said at that time, the U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, realized how upset the people were and how much the recreation of the river meant to them that he added the word “recreation” to the original legislation.
Coleman said he has respect for legitimate arguments about protecting the heritage of the area, but on the other hand it has been a national park for five decades.
“I think it’s been a national park for 50 years now and many of us would like to see it stay that way. We recognize there are some things that need to be changed and we need to get those things out on the table and talk about them,” Coleman said. “I’m very excited about the fact that we have the ONSR as one of our largest national parks, we have six here in Missouri and like other parts of the U.S. we should take pride in that.”
Ross said a balanced approach is needed and the NPS preferred plan B does not offer that. He supports the idea of turning the ONSR back over to the state of Missouri. He said the situation is in a “holding pattern” to see what the finalized GMP contains and if NPS officials are responsive to the concerns and comments they received.
The MCE and CFM do not support turning the ONSR back over to the state of Missouri for many reasons. They contend federal oversight is needed.
Ross said his passion for opposing the new federal GMP alternatives that support further restrictions is because of future generations.
“I have a four and five year old. I want for them the opportunities that I had growing up and that’s to be able to access and enjoy this. For me, that is where a lot of the fight and fire for this whole situation comes from,” Ross said. “When I see all of these proposed restrictions I know if I don’t stand up now opposing what they are attempting to do, this potentially could forever change the way that my kids, their kids and grand-kids are able to utilize and enjoy the area.”
Ross also said he thinks all parties can come to some agreement that there are responsible uses of the area. He supports better enforcement and possible fines for items such as, trash left behind, destruction of the landscape, and bathing horses in the river. He said the NPS could have a better presence with enforcement.
“There ought to be fines set up that are going to jog people’s memory if they are going to come down here and abuse the area,” Ross said. “But, I fundamentally have a problem and disagree with trying to limit the enjoyment of everyone based on a few bad actors.”
The NPS does not want to stop traditional recreational activities, according to Matteson. The goal is to try to manage the traditional activities with ones that have grown in traffic size and popularity, such as all-terrain vehicle (ATV) use.
“The NPS has a dual mission of preservation and enjoyment. We walk kind of a fine line in a lot of ways because it’s a hard mission to balance,” Matteson said. “Especially, when you have so many different interests in recreation and then so many other interests in environmental protection.”